What made Knute Rockne “All American”? What does football have to do with domestic violence? And what does the history of the sport reveal about the American struggle for racial equality?
It’s an interesting set of questions that sports scholar Katherine Walden raises in her new American studies class, “Football in America.”
Walden specializes in the intersection of sports and society. She’s accustomed to teaching “Baseball in America,” a class inspired by her doctoral research on the minor leagues. When she decided to focus a course on the gridiron, she found that there was a lot to learn.
“It’s like, ‘Where do you even start with this?’ My summer was like Notre Dame football bootcamp: watching the movies, reading the books . . . and just immersing myself in that world,” Walden says.
From that immersion, she settled on a “Football in America” syllabus that includes readings from two scholars who happen to be Notre Dame football alumni, Allen Sack ’67 and Michael Oriard ’70. Over the 16-week semester, her students will charge through nearly 150 years of college football history. Many of these students have no background in American studies, with majors spanning from science-business to Arabic. But in this history class, remembering the relevant names should be a cinch.
Several weeks are devoted to the Knute Rockne era. The class will study how he came to be a household name beyond college football and analyze Hollywood’s in immortalizing the coach and the Fighting Irish program he popularized.
“‘Win one for the Gipper’ and ‘Rudy,’ there’s so many moments where you can take these larger than life stories and figures and iconic images from Notre Dame football and really kind of strip back the layers,” Walden says.
Senior Olivia Luchetti spoke about the program’s historical identity, which tracked the shifting American identity during the early 20th century.
“The players on the team matched the demographic of the country at the time. There was a very heavy immigrant spirit on the team,” she said in class. “We rose to fame as the underdogs.”
Luchetti and her classmates have learned exactly how that spirit developed, through frequent anti-Catholic exclusion that kept Notre Dame out of the Big 10 several times during those years.
“Being forced to go all around the country, trying to find games . . . I think that contributed to us being nationally known,” said Maura Kostelni, a senior American studies major.
But the class is called “Football in America” with the Fighting Irish as only one aspect of how the sport reflects national life.
“It delves into questions about immigration history, ethnicity and whiteness and racialization,” Walden says. “If we use Notre Dame football as a starting point, that gets us into some really big and interesting conversations.”
She believes these conversations are more topical than ever. Last year, the Notre Dame football team celebrated Juneteenth with a rally and walk for unity supporting the Black Lives Matter movement amid national protests against police violence. On social media, fans expressed support and disgust in response.
In “Football in America,” Walden hopes to understand the struggle of racial inequality within sports. “Some of the questions that I’m really interested in asking about football have a lot to do with masculinity, race, gender and the commodification of the Black male body,” she says.
Senior finance major Christopher Friend says that Notre Dame football has proven to be a good starting point for considering these questions. From his perspective, the program “reflects and shapes cultural shifts in American society.”
Among all of this material, Walden also wants students to hone skills for studying history, specifically online. Coursework includes several digital labs, including recent work on a data visualization tool to track the rise of the “Fighting Irish” nickname.
Fitting it all in has proved difficult.
“It’s kind of breaking my brain. I’m trying to find a way to bring the whole class together, where students who have robust coding experience can build on and utilize those skills, while students who are brand new to this world can also be part of the conversation,” she says. “It's a teaching challenge, but I love it.”
Walden had to make tough choices about where to focus. The more recent history of the Fighting Irish occupies precious little space on the syllabus.
“You could have four semesters of courses and still not cover all of this history in depth,” she says. “There’s too much to cover. There’s so many questions to ask.”
But Walden’s hope is that through their own research and class forays into radio, newspaper, and film archives — Kostelni said her favorite so far has been the NFL Films documentary Wake Up the Echoes, though Knute Rockne All American and Rudy are still to come — students will catch a glimpse of what’s underneath the gilded glow of Notre Dame football.
Chris Parker, a senior studying classics and journalism, is this magazine’s fall semester intern.